In search of time lost – Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time by Dominic Utton

martin hCommuting is perhaps the overlooked ill of modern life. Countless people do it. Millions of hours are spent daily trailing to and from work. A necessary evil that keeps the world ticking over. But what price on the nation’s psyche? The time lost, separated from loved ones, crammed together but ignoring those around us. Collective silence, all thinking ‘Let’s just get this over with.’

Sure, we can read (yea!), update statuses, play games or, heaven forbid, do more work, but it’s hardly relaxing. It’s essentially dead time; hours stolen from our lives. And that’s without the system having one of its regular failures. I’m not aware of other attempts at critiquing the commute, but that’s what Dominic Utton’ does with his acerbic and accurate Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time.

Dan is a tabloid journalist who commutes five times a week from Oxford to London, a foolhardy distance to rely on a consistent service. Fed up with paying over the odds for an appalling service, and a lover of words, he starts to write emails to the head of ‘Premier Westward Trains’ complaining about not only late trains but the parlous state of the world generally. His aim with each letter is to waste exactly the amount of Martin’s time as Premier Westward has stolen from him.

What follows is a modern epistolary novel centred around Dan’s feelings of powerlessness. Dan recently became a father, and parenthood is not coming easy to him or his wife. His paper ‘The Globe’ becomes the centre of a hacking scandal, whilst at the same time a rebellion in North Africa is becoming increasingly bloody.

The letters start off jovial, but as his marriage begins to crumble and his job security is less and less assured, Dan’s missives start to reek of desperation. All the time Martin’s replies remain composed and professional, with just the occasional piece of avuncular advice or discreet inquiry into a piece of tabloid scandal. Dan’s depiction of commuting and the characters that ride with him will strike a chord with most people who use the trains on a regular basis.  As will the pedantic accuracy of Martin’s replies. Not to mention the delightfully obfuscating language he uses to dress up common (avoidable) problems to sound like major catastrophes (these are probably funnier in context, so I won’t spoil them for you).

The juxtaposition of Dan’s work/home balance and the travails of the populace of the unnamed African country works well. The Globe’s obsession with celebrity and Dan’s own fixation with the trains feel shallow up against a nation in turmoil, yet 95% of the time these are the things we worry about.

The novel’s middle third was over-long, and I started to fear that the book as whole wouldn’t live up to the quality of its premise. Fortunately, Utton brings things back on track (ahem) and the various strands of Dan’s missive’s reach if not happy endings, then certainly satisfactory conclusions. MHAoT is a witty chronicle of one of the most frustrating aspects of modern life. Delayed trains may be a bit of a first-world problem, but Utton’s novel is a first rate way to combat your frustrations.  A free copy given out with every season ticket purchased would go some way to easing the pain. A tonic that might even last until the second week of January…

Many Thanks to Henry at Oneworld books for agreeing to send me a copy of this book, in face of my usual shameless begging. 

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Londons Calling – Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

planesrunnerSome books are great because they are filled with complex themes and subtle nuance. Others, and they tend to be YA novels, take a single idea and tell a ridiculously exciting story that sucks you in and spits you out, breathless at the finish. Planesrunner is one of those.

Set in what is becoming a genre of its own, a parallel London, Planesrunner is a tale filled with swash, buckle, quantum physics and airships. Lots of airships. On the day his father is kidnapped Everett Singh’s life starts to get interesting. Everett’s father is a physicist, with a specialism in the Many-Worlds theory. (Everett is named after Dr Hugh Everett, founder of the Many-Worlds theory (Hugh Everett was also the father of Mark Everett, founder of the band Eels, which explains why I had ‘Novacaine for the Soul’ running through my head the whole time I read the book.)). Shortly after his father disappears, Everett receives a mysterious package; a flash drive. Not just the key to the universe but to 1080 of them.

This being fiction, where dramatic things happen, shadowy forces close in on Everett, desperate to gain the knowledge his father imparted. It soon becomes evident that travel to other universes is not only possible, but is happening right now (in our fictional universe. Not in real life, obviously. Unless it is.). A United Nations of universes exists (the brilliantly named Plenipotentiary) and Earth is about to become its newest member.  Travel between planes is haphazard, and relies on the existence of two ‘Heisenberg Gates’. What Everett has is a map. One that offers freedom to roam the multiverse.  Some very bad people are keen to take a joyride around the planes, and are prepared to take the map using any means necessary. It’s why they kidnapped Everett’s father. Before they can do anything too painful to him Everett jumps into a neighbouring alternate London.

If you’ve read any of McDonald’s science fiction (which I highly recommend you do) you’ll know they are wonderfully evocative. His world building and attention to detail is phenomenal. Planesrunner is no exception. His alternate London, one where oil has never been discovered, is breathtaking. His extrapolations and variances are well balanced and feel entirely accurate. The adventures on the other side of the gate continue apace.  There really is no let up. Everett becomes enlisted on-board the airship Everness and since this is the Everness trilogy, its fair to assume this majestic vessel is in for the long-haul.

The plot of Planesrunner is brilliant. The pace is perfect, the action is thrilling and the quantum physics just the right side of bamboozling. The complex ins and outs of the Many-Worlds theory are comprehensively explained, although they are, I think, quite complex.  I expect this book would appeal to older bracket of YA readers (and not just the 40-yr-olds). Science fans will absolutely love it. I just wanted to shut out the world and read Planesrunner in one breathless sitting.  It really is that good. So, less than a month in, contenders for my YA book of 2014 already have their work cut out, and to cap it all off, books 2&3 are already available. I shall be diving in very soon!

Many (and I mean many) thank to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me the Everness books to read.

Dead Girl Walking – Cemetery Girl by Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden

cemetery girlIf such a thing exists, Cemetery Girl could be termed an entry level graphic novel. There’s a story and there’s pictures. The story is well told and the artwork fits it well. There are hints of paranormal, a bit of black magic and a murder or two, but there is nothing excessive or gratuitous in the book. Teenagers I suspect would lap it up, but it may not be sophisticated enough to hold their attention for a long series run. With series like Fables and Unwritten out there, it’s hard to imagine anybody staying too excited by Cemetery Girl for all that long.

The artwork and setting reminded me Locke and Key, but Joe Hill’s series is artistically on a much higher level. There’s nothing as conceptually brilliant as the keys, nor are the drawings anything like the same quality though this isn’t necessarily a criticism; L&K’s Gabriel Rodriguez is probably the finest graphic novel artist out there. The drawings in Cemetery Girl are in no way bad, but neither are they exceptional.

Which all makes the book rather difficult to rate. The tale is compelling. A story of bringing a sociopath to justice for a senseless crime. The paranormal aspects stack up well and I wanted to know what happened. If you’d never read a graphic novel before,I think you’d think this was very fine and seek out more. Once you’d read a few different series, you might struggle to remember exactly why you liked this one so much…

Many Thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of this book to review. 

Not Fade Away – The Echo by James Smythe

echoThe Echo is sequel to 2013’s The Explorer and book two in the Anomaly Quartet. If you haven’t read The Explorer, stop reading now… 

Twenty or more years have passed since Earth lost contact with the Ishiguro, and now we’re heading out again.  Twins Mira and Tomas head of up team of international astronauts heading towards ‘the anomaly’. What could possibly go wrong?

Mira and Tomas are the innovators and driving force behind UNSA spaceship the Lära. They once did research for Dr Singer, one of the astronauts on board the Ishiguro and it is their desire to continue his work. The anomaly has now been formally identified on Earth and the twins want to investigate further.  Mira is on board the Lära, whilst Tomas sits at mission control. For this mission nothing has been left to chance.  Mira is clear, The Ishiguro’s pandering to money and publicity meant its mission was flawed. Scientific rigour has replaced celebrity. This time all bases are covered.

A number of reviews of The Explorer complained about a couple of specific ‘flaws’ in the novel: Smythe’s (mis)use of gravity and the preposterous idea that a comparatively untrained journalist would be allowed a spot on such an important mission. In the opening pages Smythe acknowledges the criticisms thrown at his first book before smashing them over the stands into the car park. In an age where the barrier between author and reader has never been thinner, Smythe has used his customer feedback to enhance both novels in his quartet. It’s neat trick and one that made me laugh.

The opening chapters of The Echo are a masterclass in suspense storytelling. The sense of menace builds to almost unbearable levels. In a more famous franchise, characters would have been looking at each other and saying ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.’ The opening third of the novel is my favourite section of the Anomaly books so far. What follows is another examination on the terror of isolation, and the nature of faith. Once again, the wheels start to fall off the cart (or wings off the spaceship) and no amount of faith in scientific method can save the crew from a nerve-shredding implosion.

If I have a complaint about the book it’s that it didn’t move the overreaching story along quick enough. The echoes of the previous story made a nice touch, but by the end of this book, I’m not sure we’re much further on than after the big reveal in The Explorer. Space Odysseys are not my usual fictional fare, so I think I was hoping we might grapple with the anomaly itself. There are some teasing hints as to what this entity might be, but it was all a bit too ethereal for me.

Having said that, once again Smythe excels at depicting the unravelling sanity of his characters. The use of twins separated across miles of space heightens the sense of isolation. The distance and the tough calls drive a wedge between these two closest of brothers and the rupturing of the twin-twin bond adds another dimension to the novel.

As with The Explorer, Smythe delivers a sparse psychological horror. The Echo is a book that expands on what has come before and teases as to what happens next. I said I’m not a huge fan of Space Odyssey but I’m hooked on the myriad folds and turns of this one. Roll on book three…

Many Thanks to Jaime and the team at Harper Voyager. James can be found on Twitter as @jpsmythe and his other recent novel The Machine is out now in paperback. It is also one of the best novels published during 2013

Architects of Death – Shift by Hugh Howey

shiftwoolI seem to be in the habit of reading sequels at the moment. Sequels which don’t match up to their (brilliant) predecessors. Sadly, Shift by Hugh Howey continues the trend. As with Buzz, it’s not so much that Shift is a bad book, it’s more that Wool was such a high quality novel, that with my expectations ramped to the max Shift could only disappoint.

Some of my issues with the book are more to do with the history of the trilogy’s genesis, and are perhaps therefore a little unfair. As you probably know if you’ve read this far, Wool is an Internet publishing success story. It was published in small instalments. The physical novel was a group of these bound together. You could sort of tell, but it didn’t matter. Shift is much the same. It contains three essentially separate (but linked) stories. Binding them together into a single novel implies a coherence that I would suggest isn’t there. The overall narrative is disjointed and it jars as you move from one section to the next. This issue is easily overlooked and mostly forgiveable.

More difficult to see past are, for want of a better term, the world-building issues. Much of the majesty of Wool is that the hermetically sealed silo is a wholly credible dystopian system. I stated in my review of Wool that I found it less convincing when we learn there are more silos and more so when Jules gets outside. These problems are compounded in Shift.

The opening story is effectively a genesis story, and it’s an interesting one, but knowing there are fifty silos running alongside one another dilutes the impact of the idea (It’s and Alien Vs Aliens phenomenon).  Moreover, having the construction of the silos laid out destroys their mystery. It’s no longer a huge can randomly buried in the ground with a fascinating society living within. In Wool the silo just ‘IS’. Now we learn it’s built to a plan. A plan one can’t help pick holes in and question whether it could really happen. I can’t help thinking, probably not. Suddenly the whole premise looks shaky and the brilliance of what has gone before is undermined.

The whodunit aspects of Wool were exemplary. The claustrophobic setting, taut prose and mysterious society lent weight to what was genuinely innovative storytelling. In Shift the narrative is more mundane. A dystopian vision and its unhappy denizens railing against the machine. The three stories, though different in nature still amount to roughly the same thing: Who watches the watchmen? It’s not an unimportant question, but it’s a question often asked and one which has been answered better elsewhere.

All this is a rather bleak appraisal of a book that really isn’t bad at all. It’s impossible to know what I would have made of Shift if I hadn’t previously read Wool (it’s worth pointing out here that although this is a prequel it cannot be read before Wool without diminishing both books). The story of the Silos’ inception is interesting, as is their inter-relationships. More interesting is the idea that some of the architects of the catastrophe may have been so unwittingly. ‘How could you not know?’ a character asks himself, but it is perhaps human nature to ignore the wider implications of their actions. Obeying orders makes us comfortable. This idea reflects back onto many of history’s worst moments.

There is intrigue and skulduggery aplenty. On reading Shift, one is left with the uncomfortable feeling that humanity’s default setting is ‘destroy’. Characterisation is strong, greatly adding to the novel’s readability. Whilst I have my reservations about this book, Howey’s creation is still a valuable addition to the dystopian canon. I don’t think this book enhances Wool’s reputation, but it certainly holds the reader’s attention. This is not a perfect follow up, but for those who want to spend more time in Howey’s bleak vision of the future, it still has much to recommend.

Catch the Buzz – Buzz by Anders De La Motte

Buzz is the sequel to Game, one of my books of 2013. If you haven’t read Game yet stop reading this now, check out my review then proceed to buy a copy. You won’t regret it.

buzzHow do you follow a mind-blowing debut? The phrase ‘difficult second album’ is commonly expressed in the world of music crticism, and whilst I’ve never seen it articulated in bookish circles, it’s certainly a phenomenon that applies to novels too. ( I say I’ve never seen it, I have a sneaking suspicion I’ve used it as a review title before.)

Buzz does suffer a bit from DSA syndrome. It’s impossible not to compare to Game and it does come up short. Buzz is set a year or so after it’s predecessor. HP is still in exile. Rich and bored. His sister, Becca is a bodyguard and has been promoted to team leader. As the novel opens Becca is on detail in Darfur, HP about to embark on a drug addled excursion into the desert near Dubai. Both will end in disaster. Simple misfortune or dark machinations of the Game?

The problem Buzz have over Game is that HP and Becca, aren’t in control of the plot, or rather, for most of the novel the question as to who is controlling who is not present. Game was so fresh because it involved a thrilling cat and mouse chase, where you were never entirely clear who was the cat, and who was the mouse. Buzz’s narrative presents two comparatively straightforward whodunits, each of them investigated separately. The two threads intertwine but the tying together feels more forced; a coincidence too far perhaps?

Having said that this is still a very readable book. The mystery elements are intriguing; the book demands to be read. You still want to know what is going on. Buzz is particularly strong when it come to its core theme. Computer surveillance and our own culpability in allowing our online lives to be controlled. Use of the Internet to manipulate opinion, for good or Ill, is something that is become increasingly prevalent. HP becomes involved in a company embroiled at its most sinister fringes. De La Motte uses this to show how powerful opinion on the Internet can be and how little most people consider where it comes from. Since one of the Game’s main reasons for existence is control of information, it is no surprise that HP finds himself inexorably dragged back in.

The conclusion of the book is exciting, but it is very much a holding novel for the final part, Bubble. Everything is set up for this to be an excellent climax and fortunately for those who don’t like waiting, Bubble is available now.